my world

I just read that the Dow closed below 7000 points today. Ouch. What makes it worse? That I am not in a position to add to my 401(k) anymore since I have been self-employed since Fall, 08. Dang it. All that missed opportunity . . .


I woke up this morning like I did on Christmas morning when I was a child – early, excited, full of anticipation, yet having to wait for Mom and Dad to wake up to start ripping open the goodies under the tree.

Christmas morning came with a massive excitement hangover at about 11 AM, though, when all of the presents were open, torn wrapping paper filled the space around the tree, and reality set in.  The long 365-day wait for Christmas morning next year had just begun.

As I aged, Christmas became less and less important and the possibilities of New Year’s Eve and Day held more magic.  The idea that, as the calendar year flipped, we could each resolve to start over in some way – to change the way we have acted, or thought, or treated others, or treated ourselves.  As we know, most resolutions end up losing steam and falling by the wayside.  But the high is still there, the excitement and anticipation are still there, and the hangover takes much longer to realize.

This morning is not Christmas morning, or even New Year’s morning.  No, it’s Inauguration Day.  And it’s better than Christmas or New Years.  Today is my new New Year’s Eve 2009.  Midnight is 10 AM EST (8 AM MST), and the countdown has begun.  In place of drunken champagne toasts and Dick Clark New York countdowns, I and my loved one will be curled up on the couch, likely drinking herbal tea and eating Cheerios, watching the MSNBC feed of Barack Obama’s swearing in as the new President of the United States of America.  Ahhh.  Just writing that gives me butterflies.  Get the tissues ready.

I know so many people in this country are excited that we are electing the first African-American President, and so many people are filling Capitol Mall to watch history in the making.  I am also proud of that.  Moreover, though, I am excited that we have elected an intellectual and a visionary.  Someone that I actually trust will keep the promise to America that started over 200 years ago — that the leader of this country be a servant to the people.

Americans chose hope and optimism over fear and xenophobia.  We chose measured intelligence over folksy charm.  We chose to act and be treated like adults rather than petulant children who needed a temporary pacifier shoved in our mouths to shut us up.  We chose to choose over having the choice made for us.  Our collective consciousness has been awakened — maybe there is hope for us yet. . .

I wish, this new New Year’s Day, peace, happiness, patience, tolerance, and hope for you, your’s, and our global community.  For me, I feel one step closer to breathing more freely and sleeping more soundly for the next 4 years.

Ever since I left California, I’ve been trying to figure out how to move back.  But over the course of the last 10 years, the state I love has endured some hard times.  With the astronomical growth in the cost of living, industry moving out of the state to places that are more hospitable to business (and the desert Southwest being a great recipient of that movement), high taxes, high energy costs, high crime rates, and high commute times, there are many reasons why it is foolish to move back.

When you are homesick, though, none of that stuff matters.  I miss the land, the rolling green hills that turn gold in early summer, the Live Oak and Eucalyptus trees, the rows of freshly growing produce and orchards that go on for miles.  I miss the water – the sounds and smell of the ocean, the rivers and streams that run through nearly every town, the morning and afternoon fog that envelops you like a cozy blanket, the rain that lasts for 3 days at a time and leaves everything fresh and clean when it moves out.  And I miss the way that I could take a weekend trip, never leave the state, and go to a completely different place than where I came from.  Sun/Snow, ocean/mountains, desert/forest, liberal/conservative, planned and manufactured/free spirited and natural.  Something for everyone.  Everything to keep your mind stimulated.  Everything for me.

In many ways, with its monotonous colors, monotonous landscape, monotonous weather, monotonous thought, I feel like New Mexico has made me lazy – zapped me of all of my creative energy and motivation to achieve that which is important to me.  Many people find inspiration and “enchantment” in the high desert landscape of Santa Fe.  I find the opposite – a Dead Zone.  Everything is the same, top to bottom, left to right, up and down.  48 shades of brown, incessant sun shining through 19 degree days, nothing to take your mind off of the bleakness of the place.  Boring.  Conformist.  Draining.

So on this very cold, very sunny, very oppressive Southwestern day, I eat grapefruit and oranges picked fresh from my mother’s Arizona trees and I dream of the day that I move back home.

Jan. 2007, I made the New Year’s Resolution to be brave.  For 34ish years, my nature and nurture conspired together to help me live in a life where my decisions were made because they were safe, but not exactly soul-satisfying.  So I compiled a list in my head of all of the things that I caught myself saying “I could never do that” to, and I started doing them.  Many of the items were so benign that I have basically forgotten them, but two that stick in my mind are “get a massage” and “sing in public.”

The massage thing had to do with strange people touching my naked body (body issues). It turns out, though, that not only was getting a naked massage not a big deal (there is draping involved), but I found out that I really don’t like massages – too much pushing and kneading on my muscles hurt, and not in a good way.  I’ll take a facial any day.  But, I got to check it off of the list and move on with life afraid of one less thing.

Also borne from this list was my decision to go to law school.  History will be the judge of whether that was ultimately a good move or not, but all in all, 2007 was a year for growth and stepping out.

Still, 2008 came and I felt that I needed to renew my resolution.  “Be Brave” became “Be Fearless”.  I don’t know if there is a real difference between these two, but it feels like there is a difference.  Bravery, to me, is standing up to demons that scare you.  Fearlessness is actively looking for those demons and confronting them, whether they want to be confronted or not.  My new commitment made me a Bounty Hunter of my fear, but also left me wandering the woods like Harry Potter in Book 7 – searching for what to do next. Like a huge tsunami crashing into a beachside resort, my date with destiny came in the form of the month of September.

If you haven’t noticed by now, I write from a place of anxiety.  When I am angry or worried, I write to sort things out and help me bring order and reason to the unexplainable.  Writing is my catharsis.  The problem with this, however, is that I fail to write when things are going really well.  If I’m not feeling anxious, or more than that – I actually feel good, then I like to bask in the moments and lock them away as memories rather than as words on a page.  The problem is that when I later get worried about decisions that I have made that came from a place of strength and power, I have nothing to go back to that reminds me that I really did think all this through before I jumped off of the ledge.  Ultimately, I end up second-guessing all of these “reckless” decisions and end up right back in my anxious place again.

So, I am making it up to September.  We must capture these feelings of bravery and bravado before the demons eat me whole.

September 8: I Let Go

After months of knowing but hesitating to pull the plug, I officially submitted my resignation to law school.  I thought it would feel liberating or a little scary, but it ended up being a “check the box” move.  I felt completely neutral afterward, which means that I waited too long to do it.  Still, the process of coming to terms with my experiences with law school was not an easy one.  Soon, I will write a series of posts explaining my thought process and research which hopefully will help others with their decisions to stay or go as others in the blogosphere have helped me.

Never underestimate the power of letting go, however.  Once I hit Send on the letter, I felt like I was clearing out some clutter that was keeping me from moving on, and new possibilities made themselves known.

September 11: I Faced Fear in Knee-High Stiletto Boots

One of the things that bugged me is that I never completed Item #1 on my Chicken Shit List — to sing in public.  So, what started out as a plan to practice a song I was comfortable with and sing it in some karaoke bar turned into fronting four hours of music in a band of Brent’s making and performing live at Evangelo’s on Thursday, September 11th.  An ominous date, to be sure.  All my day-of preparation was wrong.  I went to work all day which made me tired for a 9PM – 1AM gig.  I skipped dinner.  I wore my stiletto boots which made me feel like a rock star, but which nearly hobbled me after 2 hours.  I went into “dancer mode” and held my nerves in my core, which is bad for a singer who needs to take deeps breaths all night.  I only realized on Sunday that I hadn’t taken a deep breath since Wednesday (no wonder my voice was completely shot at the end of the night).

For all the bad that happened, apparently we were good enough for the crowd of friends to stay and to drag in about 25 people from the street – a feat for a Thursday night in Santa Fe.  I wouldn’t say I’m any less scared of singing in public, but I feel proud that I had the ovaries to get up on stage and play American Idol for a night.  Plus, I’m still in the band.  I think being fearless takes practice.

September 19: I Asked for What I Wanted

For two years-minus-law school, I have been searching for a new job.  And on September 16th, I was extended an offer from a group at the Lab that I had interviewed with twice.  Government jobs are predictable – there is no guessing on what the position should be paid because they advertise a Minimum-Median-Maximum range for every job they publish.  I was expecting the job offer, and I was expecting it to come in low.  What I wasn’t expecting was for it to be insultingly low.  $10K lower than Median.  85% of Median.    It wasn’t the manager’s fault, really.  The Human Resources department is its own rogue agency.  They put all of my information into a super-secret formula that spits out what I should be offered based on my years of experience, education, previous salary history, etc.  It’s not personal, it’s just business.

The problem for me, though, is that it is personal.  I work very hard for the people that I work for, and no matter what the job is, I give it my all, including my loyalty.  It is who I am.  Extending a fair offer says to me that you have faith in my ability to perform.  A low offer says that you aren’t quite sure, so you don’t want to stick your neck out too far. Plus, there are limitations with working for the government, which include not being able to ask for interim pay raises based on performance and not being able to get a new job in your same pay grade with a raise.  You must maximize your starting salary for greater success down the line – that’s the game.

Therefore, I take being low-balled very personally, and this wasn’t right.  So I called the person who would be my manager.  I explained to her that the offer came in much lower that I expected and asked if we could do better.  After much discussion, she asked how much I wanted.  I said, “Well, I want six-figures, of course.  But I’m a bargain at Median.”

I recently read that one of the problems with the salary inequity between men and women is that men ask for more.  Women don’t.  So, I stepped out of my comfort zone and I asked.

September 22: I Said No

The manager came back from HR with $2K more. I knew that she wanted me over the others that she interviewed (for various reasons I won’t go into here), but I got the impression that she had never had anyone ask for more money before.  $8K below Median was not much of an improvement.  It didn’t even break the 90% of Median threshold.

So I sat with it for awhile.  I thought about how I would feel on the first day on the job, knowing that I was doing work that I was underpaid for.  I thought about the interviews and how the interviewers impressed upon me that this job was not for wusses – “There is not a week that goes by that Debi isn’t insulted by one of the guys on the crew” and “You will be forcing people to comply with policies that are not always in their best interest to follow.”  The job is thankless in many ways.  I calculated how many years it would take (given averages raises) to get to today’s Median mark – 4.2 years.  Then I thought about my Plan B – starting my own business – and how that felt empowering.  Destructive work vs. Constructive work.  The more I thought about it, the bigger the pit in my stomach grew at the prospect of taking the offer.  So I declined it.  And it felt good.  I felt strong and I had no regrets.

Flash Forward to Today

My contract at the Lab ran out, so as of Oct. 29th, I have officially been “self-employed.”  And I am freaking out.  No paycheck, paying for my own health insurance, and being a kept woman.  In a crumbling economy.  None of it feels very good.  These are the times I look back on September and think “Where in the hell did I get all of the optimism and guts to turn down a job offer?” and “Maybe I should have taken that offer and just sucked it up?”  The reality is, though, that I would have hated that job and it would have kept me small.  Better paid, but small.  And somewhere, at some point in the not-so-distant past and for the briefest of moments, I felt like I was better than that.  For a girl who is admittedly glass-half-empty, that is what Fearless looks like.

Four years ago this morning, my heart sank and my stomach was sick. After living through 4 years of George W. Bush, there seemed to be people who weren’t paying attention.

I love my country.  But this morning, for the first time in 8 long years, I can finally say I am PROUD to be an American.  Not only because we, as a collective people, elected a black man for president, but also because we, as a collective people, seem to have finally made the right decision.  I guess change really is possible.

Lots of talk of change in the air.  The Santa Fe weather has finally decided to turn into Fall.  In the last month, I have officially submitted my resignation from law school, performed as the lead singer of a band at a Santa Fe nightclub (a feat I swore I would never attempt), and I turned down what otherwise might have been a lucrative, stable job offer to open my own business and succeed or fail on my own terms.  All things to be talked about in another post on another day.

No, it is difficult to go on as usual without acknowledging the real economic problems we face this morning and the Chicken Littles who are determined to make everyone feel like the Apocalypse is just around the bend.  Talk of The Great Depression and “bank runs” and “global meltdowns” do seem dire, but we must remember the sources of all of these  – both the actual events and the people determined to remind us (wrongly) of them.

There is a building I walk through each day whose lobby is populated by a large security station and a very large flat panel television that is alternately tuned to Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN, depending on tastes of the guards on duty.  As I walked past yesterday, a voice caught my attention.  Lou Dobbs, CNN.  The market closed below 8600 points, and he was berating other financial experts on other channels who recommend that people hold steady in the market and ride out the storm.   “These people are insane!” he screamed. “It’s absolutely irresponsible!” he cried.  Frozen in my tracks, I watched this rant, mouth agape, for about 5 minutes.  He was advocating people panic, pull their money out of the markets, and then panic again, in that order.  I got mad.  This guy doesn’t get it, and he’s spreading his fear and ignorance to his viewing audience when he should be spreading information so that people can decide what to do for themselves.  So, let me fill in the blanks that Mr. Dobbs so effortlessly neglected to mention.

This Week’s Stock Market Crash in Real Terms, Part 1

Many people hear the cry of the NYSE trading at 8500 points and panic.  It was trading at 14000 points in January and now it’s lost over 5000 points!  But let’s look at what that means in real terms.

The stock market was trading at 8500 points in 2003.  2003.  5 years ago.  Not 20 years ago, or 50 years ago, but 5 years ago.  What I make of that is (A) 5 years ago wasn’t so long ago, and I’m still alive, so 8500 points isn’t the death knell that it is being made out to be, and (B) perhaps the 14000 point level was artificially high – pushed by the housing boom and easy credit – and we just experienced an unsustainable bubble, much like the bubble we reached in 2000 at the end of the tech boom.  People who “played” the markets then won big or lost big.  But those of us sitting on 401(k)s until retirement 30+ years in the future didn’t lose a thing.  It was Play Money to begin with.

The Lesson: Unsustainable increases (and decreases) in market values tend to self-correct over time.  This is not a cause for panic.  Consider it comfort for what is to come.

This Week’s Stock Market Crash in Real Terms, Part 2

As of this morning, I have lost 38.8% of the value of my 401(k) since Jan. 1st of this year.  It will likely go lower today.  But let’s look at how my 401(k), which is probably much like your’s, breaks down.

I am young and I invest aggressively.  I am in 100% stocks spread evenly over foreign, contra, and large/mid/small cap domestic funds.  I have 12% of my paycheck deducted pre-tax and shoved into my retirement fund, my employer matches up to 6% of my salary.  Over the years and as my account grows (or doesn’t), I get all sorts of bonuses – growth of the shares I own, dividends that are reinvested, interest, the works.  So, I figure that my current fund is now comprised of about 60% my money, 30% my employer’s money, and 10% “other” from the reinvestments.  In this light, if I have “lost” 38.8% of my account’s value, then I am still playing with someone else’s money – a combo of my employers and dividend money.  My own contributions, so far, have remained untouched.

But then let’s look at the number of shares I own.  At the start of Jan. 2008 (End of Quarter 4, 2007), I owned a combined total of 195.071 shares in my various fund groups.  At the end of Sept. 2008 (Quarter 3, 2008), I owned 588.999 shares.  With this current market sell off, I will own more.  Granted, I will own more shares of stock that is worth less than it used to, but when the stock market kicks into gear again (oh, and it will, believe me), I will be well positioned to make a small killing.  Buy low, sell high.  Those people who are pulling out of the market (and are many years away from withdrawing the money) are engaging in the equivalent of buying a house at the peak of the housing market, watching house prices fall, panicking, and selling their house when the market is the lowest.  It makes bad financial sense.

The Lesson: If you are many years from retirement, sit on your hands and do not touch your retirement accounts (except to go “riskier” and reap the benefits a few years from now).  If you are close to retirement, you should not have had your life savings in the stock market to begin with.  Pull out now and put it into cash and low interest bonds until things start settling down.

The Current Market Crash and the Great Depression

Comparing the current market crash to the Great Depression is my favorite scare tactic of the current popular press.  Most of us learned about the Great Depression through our history classes, through iconic images of men in suits standing in bread lines and women sweeping porches of ramshackle homes on the cover of Life magazine, and through the lovely writings of John Steinbeck.

What did you learn about the causes?  Do you remember?  Probably something about a stock market crash in 1929 putting an end to the flapper era and everyone losing their jobs.  Oh yeah – and WWII got us out of the Great Depression.  Stock market = bad.  War = good.  Right?  Am I close?  If I am, it’s because these are the lessons that I remember, too.  That is, until I did some investigating into the causes of the Great Depression when the 9/11 attacks were threatening another Great Depression.  This is what I learned:

  • The Great Depression was caused by an awful lot of factors – corporate greed, government incompetence, public panic, large personal and commercial debt as a result of free access to easy and abundant credit.  Sounds similar to now.
  • The US economy was primarily a farming (commodities) and manufacturing economy in the early 20th century.  These two sectors rely on massive reserves of human capital (i.e. labor).  When these sectors are hit, they lay off a lot of people.  During the height of the Great Depression, unemployment was about 30%, made up mostly of laborers.
  • US farming was hit by a massive Dust Bowl era, brought on by a drought (though no more severe than was typical for the region) and poor farming and land management practices.
  • The US economy operated on a gold standard, which severely limited the ability of money to change hands and to compound.
  • As a response to the economic downturn and resulting belt-tightening across the nation, the government instituted a number of disastrous reactions, which included (among others) placing higher tariffs on exports, resulting in a backlash of foreign country-raised tariffs on US goods.  This served to slow both international trade and the potential for the US to sustain the flush of international money it enjoyed during the Industrial Revolution.

My conclusion was and is that the conditions that created the Great Depression of the 1930’s simply are not evident today.  Our economy is more diverse (including the advent of the “knowledge worker”); technology and industrial diversity has lessened the effect of any one industry’s collapse on national unemployment rates; and regulations and programs put in place after the Great Depression (i.e., Social Security, unemployment benefits, and Welfare), though imperfect, ensure that a great many out-of-work citizens continue to have a certain amount of buying power that slows, but not halts, the economy.

Under these circumstances, the cry of the next Great Depression is greatly exaggerated.  I’m not saying that another Great Depression couldn’t happen in some other fashion, but current comparisons of our current situation to that which happened almost 80 years ago is disingenuous at best, and fear mongering at worst.

The Lesson: People who try to scare you want something from you – your viewing time, your vote, your money.  Be smart.  The internet is a wonderful tool for finding truth.  If something doesn’t sound right (or is morbidly calamitous), let your fingers do the walking and find out the real truth for yourself.

We all need to remember to breathe.  While it may seem that the sky is falling, look up, trust your eyes, see that it is still blue up there, and take a deep breath.  Altogether, now:  Inhale.  Exhale.

For the last couple of days, I have been in the middle of writing two different posts. And as with most multi-tasking efforts, two posts take twice as long to write. But I’m breaking in with a different post today to refocus on something that personally affected me last night.

Brent and I went to see Arianna Huffington speak last night at the Lensic. When you buy tickets to see Arianna Huffington speak at the Lensic in Santa Fe, you know what you are going to get – a fire and brimstone sermon to the faithful. However, for me her speech was like a refocusing of the end goal; a coach pumping up her football team during halftime.

We all know that the goal is to win, but she reminded me that the costs of losing are so much more dire than just simply not winning. Losing this election and entering into additional years where the people – The People – have no voice in the type of political system that is imposed upon them is dire not just for our own liberties, but risks the further loosening of the foundational blocks that made this country so great for those that came before us. What legal professionals call “precedent-setting.” The systematic disintegration of the Constitution can be permanent if we do not act to stop this.

Therefore, today I make this pledge:

1. I will talk about the issues, and leave the petty stuff to People Magazine.

I will no longer talk about the candidate’s personal lives, their ages, their genders, their races, their hair color, or their pregnant daughters. I will no longer talk about how elitist someone is or how militant they come across, how many houses that they own or whether their wives are financing their election. Instead, I will talk about the issues. I will talk about what they say they will do, what they have said in the past that they would do, and how those things are and are not consistent. And I will talk about their experience and character, because those are also important indicators to their ability and track record of saying what they do and doing what they say.

2. I will criticize the media for showing both sides of an issue, yet not questioning the validity of the statements from the people who state them.

Journalists should be the watchdogs of history. They are in the best position to say when someone is rewriting one’s own history and rhetoric because they have the tapes.  As a country, we should have never gotten into a discussion about whether or not W had a war with Iraq on his agenda before 9/11 because we had the tapes of the second debate in 2000 where he said he was going to invade Iraq.

As a country, we should never get away with letting John McCain say “the fundamentals of our economy are strong” and then allow him to define “fundamentals” as “the American workers” when (A) we all know that that’s not what he originally meant, otherwise he would have said “workers” instead of “fundamentals” and (B) the workers of America cannot be “fundamentally strong” when the businesses that they work for are collapsing under the weight of an over-burdened and over-extended economy. We need both jobs and people to fill those jobs in order for the US economy to compete on a global level, much less aim for strong.

As a country, we should not allow Barack Obama to say that the surge in Iraq succeeded “beyond our wildest dreams” when the point of the surge was to calm violence long enough for the Iraqi government to stand up, get their bearings about them, and start controlling the violence themselves with their own government and their own police forces at the helm. This did not happen. Therefore, the surge in Iraq was a miserable failure. The media should be stating as much and reminding the American people X number of US soldiers have died and Xbillion dollars have been wasted since the surge was set in motion for a goal that never came to pass.

3. I will no longer entertain thoughts from friends, family, and strangers that voting for a 3rd party candidate is even an option in this election.

In 2000, Ralph Nader was blamed for “stealing” votes from Al Gore, which would have given Gore a clean win. At the time, 3rd party voting was our way of publicly protesting. “One vote doesn’t matter that much anyhow, and I’m pissed at the choices the top two parties have given me. I’ll show them.”

We are past this now. We know better. One of these two guys is going to win. Accept it. You have an option to throw your hat in for one of them. If you don’t like either of them and are officially “Undecided,” then do your civic duty. Research their platforms and plans on the top three issues that are most important to you, and decide based on whose plan you can stomach the most. Then vote for that person. A vote for a 3rd party candidate in THIS election is a vote to hand over your responsibility for the direction of this country to the rest of the voting public. Stop being a martyr and decide who you want more than the other. It is too important.

4. I will no longer have this blog hidden from the search engines.

Today, I admit that I kept this forum off of the search engines out of fear – fear that people won’t like what I have to say, fear that someone will harass me for my words, fear that I will say the wrong things and offend someone that I had no intention of offending. However, I have come to realize that I learn from other people who often say the wrong things and then have to think about, apologize for, and revise what they say. They learn to be more precise with their words and they learn to think more critically about a subject before spouting off about it.

I am taking a stand that opening myself up to the world and having strangers read my thoughts is less scary than the possibility of my voice not being heard – suppressing the possibility of changing someone’s mind about a topic and stifling the opportunity for intelligent discussion.

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